Friday, April 8, 2011

Money can't buy China happiness
By Wu Zhong, China Editor 

HONG KONG - Late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, a couple of years before his death in 1976, once advised a visiting foreign guest how to read and understand propaganda in the Chinese media. He said what was being trumpeted or glorified in "our newspapers" was exactly what "we" needed to improve or try to attain. 

Nearly 40 years later, his advice seems still valid, even as China's economy and society have changed profoundly. Following his advice, one may interpret Chinese media's zealous praise of "pursuit of happiness for the people" - a goal set by the Chinese government recently - as an indication that "happiness" is still

something Chinese people are in want of, though they are much better off economically. 

Indeed, even some Chinese officials and commentators frankly admit this. For example, Zhang Lijuan, a columnist for - the official website of the State Council's Information Office, wrote on March 16, "30 years' of economic reforms in China have created an economic miracle. The government has promoted economic growth with a GDP target every year. But paradoxically, although people are wealthier, they are not happier. Facing issues of social injustice, high inflation, and a widening gap between the rich and poor, the government has decided to directly target happiness." 

The goal of "happiness" for the people was announced by Premier Wen Jiabao in his Government Work Report to the opening of the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC) on March 4. It is also written into the national 12th Five-year Plan for Social and Economic Development (2011 - 15) as a signal of change in development strategy. In his report, Wen said the government's work is to "let people live more happily and with more dignity". In an online chat with netizens earlier, Wen gave his definition that "happiness means people live comfortably, feel relieved and safe, and have confidence in the future." Wen also said that Beijing would adopt the "happiness of the people" as a new yardstick to measure the performance of officials, replacing the 30-year-old yardstick of GDP growth. 

Needless to say, like the concept of GDP, the idea of using "happiness" to measure development is not a Chinese invention. Over past years, arduous efforts have been made in some Western countries, the United Kingdom in particular, to find some quantitative measurement of "happiness" to replace GDP. So far such efforts proven not so successful because "happiness" is quite a subjective feeling. It would be interesting to see how China would work out a quantitative measurement. 

Even in the absence of a "scientific" or "quantitative" measurement of happiness, using Wen's qualitative definition, Chinese people are not happy. Materially they may be living more comfortably than before, but they certainly do not feel relieved and safe in their daily lives. If the Chinese government really wants to seek happiness for people, it must strive to remove their sources of unhappiness. 

Chinese people are certainly very unhappy or even outraged at much-talked-about problems such as rampant social injustice, corruption, widening wealth gaps, unbearably high housing prices and inflation. But apart from these issues, they lately are more haunted with renewed fears about food safety as no one can be sure whether the food they eat is poisonous or harmful in some way. 

On March 15, shortly after the closure of the NPC annual session, an investigative report by China Central Television (CCTV) revealed that Shuanghui Group, China's largest processed meat producer based in Luohe city in Henan province, had used clenbuterol-contaminated pork in its meat products. Feeding a pig with clenbuterol, a fat-burning chemical, keeps it lean. But clenbuterol has proven toxic to humans and China banned using it as an additive in animal feed in 1997. Grilled by the media, Shuanghui later had to admit that the tainted pork came from pigs raised in one of its farms in Henan. 

Over past 20 years, Shuanghui has established itself as the most popular brand of processed meat in China, with pork products on sale in all Chinese provinces and cities. Pork is the favored meat of Han Chinese, which account for over 90% of the population. Many, if not all, have consumed Shuanghui products. The scandal immediately triggered a nationwide panic. Supermarkets rushed to take Shuanghui products off their shelves. Consumers now refrain from buying fresh pork, especially if it is lean. If the largest meat processor in the country could have raised pigs with clenbuterol-added feed, it is most likely that other smaller pig farms would also have done so. Chinese media are busy doing follow-up reports. 

For many Chinese, the Shuanghui scandal seems like the last straw for their confidence in food safety, following a spate of reports about tainted foodstuffs in recent years. 

I happened to meet a group of tourists from Beijing last week. "What concerns people there the most lately?" I asked. "The Shuanghui incident and food safety," they answered almost in unison. 

"People now have more money and want to enjoy life. We Chinese savor good food following the ancient teaching that 'food is heaven for people.' But what food can we enjoy? You are not even sure what you can eat safely nowadays. Fish? They are fed with antibiotics. Chicken? They are injected with hormones (for quick growth). Vegetables? Too much residues of insecticide… Not to mention faked foodstuffs. Do you know there are now even fakes eggs on sale now?" one of them said. 

"The government says it wants to pursue happiness for us. How can we be happy if we need to worry about the food we eat everyday? This is not a new problem and Shuanghui by no means an isolated case. The government must really do something to win back people's confidence," another said. 

Still another joked that they were perhaps like the Count of Monte Cristo in French writer Alexandre Dumas' novel of the same name, who took a tiny amount of a poison daily so that in the end he became immune. "But Count of Monte Cristo is a fictional figure and he only takes one kind of poison. We don't know how many kinds of poisonous stuff we have taken with our daily food in past years, so perhaps we are immune to all kinds of poisons." 

China's central leaders are apparently also aware of the problem. During the NPC session, Vice Premier Wang Qishan in charge of economic and financial affairs, told lawmakers from Liaoning province: "There are indeed serious problems regarding food safety… The whiter wheat flour or rice looks, the more afraid people are to buy and eat it… We deeply apologize [for not doing a good job]." 

No sooner had he spoken that the Shuanghui scandal was exposed. From a positive perspective, this could be interpreted as a sign that Beijing is becoming more serious about food safety. But in that case, how come such things are always uncovered by the media only? Where is the government supervision? 

In many ways, the Shuanghui incident is similar to the scandal of Sanlu melamine-tainted baby formula exposed in 2008. Sanlu was one of China's largest processed milk producers. Like clenbuterol, melamine is also a strictly banned chemical but still found to have been rampantly used as an additive to milk to boost its protein levels.

No doubt, lax government supervision is the blame for the use of banned drugs. But things may not be as simple as they appear. 

An unconfirmed report said that the party secretary of a city in Henan went to CCTV to complain, "Why don't you brief us first before you broadcast the report. A large enterprise will collapse because of your report. And the local economy will be damaged seriously." 

These sentences are quite telling, whoever said them. 

Shuanghui Group's sales in 2008 already exceeded 35 billion yuan (US$5.34 billion). It ranked No 166 on the 2007 list of China's Top 500 Enterprises. Shuanghui Group now claims it has lost 100 million yuan in sales everyday since the CCTV report on March 15. 

One of its subsidiaries, Shuanghui Development, is listed in Shanghai. Its share price quickly fell 10% to the down limit on March 15 to close at 77.94 yuan. Trading of its shares has been indefinitely suspended since then. The Group had planned to go public as a while this year, but may have to suspended the plan. 

Such a big business certainly is seen by local government and officials as a money tree, which could contribute significantly not only to the local government coffers but to officials' pockets. Under such circumstances, who would supervise whom? From this perspective, whatever measures authorities may take to improve food safety without an effective crackdown on corruption are just like treatingsymptoms but not the disease. 

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